Maeve Connolly - Irish News

The British government is trying to damage the democratic process by restricting the fund-raising of political parties, according to Sinn Féin.

NIO minister John Spellar announced yesterday (Thursday) that a special arrangement where Northern Ireland parties have been exempt from a ban preventing their British counterparts from accepting international donations above £200 would be terminated.

This loophole in the law will be closed once the relevant order expires next February, Mr Spellar said at Westminster.

Sinn Féin receives significant funding from US benefactors and has reacted angrily to the development.

The discrepancy between Northern Ireland and British parties has always been a source of discontent for unionist politicians who claim that nationalist affinity with the south of Ireland and US is an unfair advantage.

Foyle assembly member Mitchell McLaughlin accused the government of trying to "stop the electoral advances of Sinn Féin".

"This is just the latest in a series of measures to deny Sinn Féin sources of funding available to all other parties," he added.

Mr McLaughlin said his party had been denied £100,000 in policy development grants which are available to parties with more than two MPs.

"We had last week's decision by Paul Murphy to withhold £120,000 of assembly funding from our party and now this further attempt to restrict party fund-raising."

The bulk of donations are "spent in the countries of origin and studiously scrutinised by the respective governments" Mr McLoughlin said, adding that Sinn Féin was the only party in Ireland "to voluntarily open it books and sources of finance to public scrutiny".

Making the announcement, Mr Spellar said there was a greater need for transparency since the current arrangements were "open to abuse" and made a clear difference between the financial opportunities for parties north and south of the border as well as in Britain.

He acknowledged the Republic's special interest in the political climate of Northern Ireland.

"The government is therefore inviting views of what new arrangements might be made within those objectives and will aim to announce its decisions by the end of the year."

Responding to the announcement, the SDLP urged the government not to prevent it lobbying in the Republic.

Party chairwoman Patricia Lewsley also warned against making public the identities of donators – a move which she said could endanger lives.

Unionists and the Alliance party welcomed the proposals. East Antrim UUP MP Roy Beggs said it would correct "an imbalance in our democracy".

Alliance leader David Ford said people in the north and south of Ireland should have the same protection as those in England, Scotland and Wales.

May 8, 2004

This article appeared first in the May 7, 2004 edition of the Irish News.

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